01/25/2002 12:00AM

Clergy may fit best in Southwest

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NEW ORLEANS - Clergy's 2 1/2-length win in an allowance last Sunday at Fair Grounds put an exclamation point behind a similarly impressive debut here Dec. 21. With an unbeaten 3-year-old, you would think even the barn of understated trainer Frankie Brothers would be rippling with excitement.

Instead, Brothers is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Clergy, hoping, but not assuming, that he will prove to be as capable in route races as he has been in his two sprint wins. Clergy is likely to get his chance at a route in the one-mile Southwest Stakes early next month at Oaklawn Park.

"He's got natural speed and you can put him anywhere you want in a race," Brothers said. "He's a push-button little horse."

Brothers cannot help crack a wry smile when he says "little." Clergy, who was gelded earlier last year, is by the hot young sire Pulpit, whose offspring have performed well in route races. But Clergy does not look like a typical Pulpit - there simply is not much to him.

"He's a well-made horse, but he's just not very big," Brothers said. "He's blocky, and he's a horse you'd almost think to look at him that he'd be a sprinter."

Brothers said he's normally quick to put a young horse in a route race. But with Clergy, Brothers thought that having two sprints would give him a better foundation for stretching out, which, after two wins, was inevitable.

"With a 3-year-old this time of year, who almost have to try them long," said Brothers.

Brothers said he would prefer to run Clergy at Fair Grounds, but he fears that the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes, the local spot for Clergy, will be a strong race. "Historically, the Southwest is not quite as tough as the Risen Star," Brothers said. The Southwest also is a half-furlong shorter than the Risen Star and features a short stretch run. "It's the more logical of the two races," said Brothers.

Bad foot may be Rock Slide's alibi

Trainer Neil Howard hopes he has found the explanation for Rock Slide's disappointing fifth-place finish in the Louisiana Handicap on Dec. 29. About 10 days after the Louisiana, an abscess popped out of Rock Slide's coronet band, which rings the top of the hoof. Shortly thereafter, Rock Slide developed a quarter crack in the hoof below the point of the abscess.

"Maybe that gives us something to hang our hat on as to why he gave us such a dull effort," Howard said. Howard said that an abscess can affect a horse's performance even before it becomes visible, and that Rock Slide's foot might well have been bothering him during his last race. "The way he ran, that wasn't his race at all," said Howard.

Rock Slide hasn't trained since his injury was diagnosed, and a patch must be applied to the quarter crack before he can return to the track. Howard is hopeful that will happen soon, and that Rock Slide will not have lost much fitness during his time off.

Drewman eyes Whirlaway

While the winner of last weekend's Diplomat Way Handicap, Crafty Shaw, is unlikely to return for the Whirlaway Handicap next month, the horse he narrowly beat, Drewman, is on target to start for the race.

Drewman's ran an excellent race in the Diplomat Way. Making his first start with blinkers, and coming off a couple sharp works, Drewman jumped right into the race from post 1, and wound up setting a fast pace. He ran six furlongs in just over 1:11, an exceptional route split for this racetrack, and was headed in the stretch, but rebroke for jockey Larry Melancon at the furlong pole and shook loose before Crafty Shaw ran him down.

"Other than finishing second, we were real happy with his race," said trainer Hal Williams. "He showed a lot of courage at the eighth pole, and that was what we were looking for."

Williams thinks Drewman will be better off stalking the pace, and hopes to slow him down between now and the Whirlaway.

Where's Taylor to Mardi Gras

Trainer Hilary Pridham confirmed that her stable star, Where's Taylor, will make his next start Feb. 12 in the $75,000 Mardi Gras Handicap, rather than in next weekend's $150,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup.

His participation in the Mardi Gras, which is run over seven and one-half furlongs, sets up an interesting showdown with the race's two-time defending champion, Northcote Road. The top sprinter Bonapaw also is under consideration for the Mardi Gras.

* Robby Albarado was off his mounts Thursday and Friday after contracting chicken pox.